Lehigh Valley

Council approves Airbnb regulations: 'Bethlehem's not the beach'

Inspections, licensing, penalties included

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - Bethlehem City Council approved legislation Tuesday night to regulate short-term lodging facilities, commonly called Airbnbs, through inspections and licensing.

The vote was unanimous.

The new ordinance, passed on final reading, will crack down on commercial enterprises and "go after bad actors taking advantage of the neighborhood," said Councilman Adam Waldron.

The bill came to fruition after residents reported that Airbnbs are becoming more prominent in various neighborhoods where they had not existed previously, causing parking and security issues and compromising the integrity of those areas. 

The ordinance will impact homeowners who offer temporary housing in various ways.

They will be required to have a city inspection done once per year.

They will also be required to maintain a list of the occupants who stayed there and the duration of the stay.

To qualify for the new city license, a property utilized for temporary housing would have to be occupied by the owner.

Property owners who operate Airbnbs would also face penalties for violations: for the first violation, a fine of $200, 30 days imprisonment or both.

The legislation will help "secure the neighborhood community," said Councilwoman Olga Negron.

Prior to the ordinance vote, Councilman Eric Evans offered an amendment that an owner must rent out a portion of the home for a minimum of seven consecutive days and not to exceed 30 days.

Councilman Bryan Callahan supported the amendment, saying the city had to regulate a "transient demographic coming in and out."

However, Councilman Shawn Martell said the amendment was perhaps too stringent and could actually punish otherwise law-abiding homeowners who "wanted to raise a couple of extra dollars" and would not meet the seven-day threshold.

Waldron added that for now the original ordinance was sufficient and that if in a few months or year was found to be inadequate, additional regulations could then be enacted. He said that once it was enacted, it was unlikely council would later decrease regulations.

Council President J. William Reynolds said he understood the arguments presented by both men and noted that council's job was to "balance different interests" when enacting legislation. He also concurred with his colleagues that the city "can't always look at the worst situation possible" when crafting legislation. Reynolds noted that the transient population who come into the city for short stays actually fuel the economy, patronizing downtown small business owners and restaurants.

However, Reynolds ultimately came down on the side of Evans' amendment, noting that although he and his colleagues "sounded like Democrats … sometimes you need rules. Sometimes you need regulations."

To illustrate his point, he mentioned how some individuals will rent out a home for a weekend in a town at the shore, such as Ocean City or Stone Harbor, N.J.

"Bethlehem," the president said, "is not the beach."

The amendment passed 5-2, with Waldron and Martell casting the two dissenting votes. Both councilmen voted in favor of the ordinance once the amendment was approved.

In other news, council approved the recommendations of Mayor Robert Donchez to fill various positions. Three individuals — Dennis Connell, A. Flexer Illick and Bryan Ritter — were appointed to the Codes Board of Appeals, while Frank Baran was appointed to the city's Human Relations Commission and Deirdre Sumpter was approved to serve on the Sister City Commission.

Council also gave their approval for Sandra Gillen, Ellen Foscue Johnson and Dolores Yaschur Sproule to serve on the Fine Arts Commission.

In addition, council appointed Cathy Reuscher and Emil Signes to the Bethlehem Area Public Library Board.

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